“and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” Matt. 2:11
Today’s Solemnity of the Epiphany is truly the Christmas celebration for the Gentiles, the day on which for the first time the Son of God, born as a son of Israel, the son of Mary, is revealed as the Son of Man, the Savior of all mankind. So rejoice all you gentiles, for in this child you too are called to become God’s adopted offspring. The three Magi or wise men who came from the east represent the rest of the world outside of Israel. Just as the shepherds represented the people of Israel at the birth of the Savior, so do these visitors from the east represent the rest of mankind paying homage to their Savior also at His birth. It was, indeed, most fitting that representatives of the pagan peoples, who were ever searching for God, and for a Savior from their sins, would be led by God to Bethlehem to honor the birth of the Redeemer, whis is their redeemer also, for Jesus has come to save all men of goodwill, as the angels proclaimed to the Shepherds on the night of his birth.
For those Jews who were not closed to the prophetic teaching of Isaiah, this should not have comes as a total surprise, for in today’s first reading from chapter 60 of Isaiah we hear this universal mission of the messiah proclaimed:
“Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you.” (60:3-4)
Jesus is truly the light, the glory of the Lord, that has arisen in Israel, but this light which arises within Israel is intended not only for Israel but for all the nations who will come to His light. The Messiah is a light for the nations can be seen more than once in Isaiah: “I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations,” (42:6) and again, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (49:6) And this same designation of the Messiah is also seen in the Book of Tobit:
“A bright light will shine to all parts of the earth; many nations shall come to you from afar, And the inhabitants of all the limits of the earth, drawn to you by the name of the Lord God, Bearing in their hands their gifts for the King of heaven.” Tobit 13:11
In this beautiful passage from Tobit, we not only see the prophecy repeated that the Christ will be for all men, a bright light shining to all parts of the earth, but again we are presented with the prophecy that the nations will be bringing gifts for the King of Heaven. Isaiah, however, even specifies two of the gifts that the nations will bring: They shall bring gold and frankincense, and likewise prophecizes that the pagans shall worship the same Lord that Israel worships, and [they] shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
For St. Paul and for the early Church at large, there is no question that God has made the gentiles also the object of his mercy, true subjects of the promise He made to Abraham. The gentiles too have a redeemer in Jesus Christ and now are co-heirs with the Jews of the Kingdom of God. St. Paul speaks of this great mystery, in today’s second reading in the Letter to the Ephesians, “that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” This mystery was hidden in prophecy until Christ’s coming, but now all this has been revealed, and thus is it any wonder that God would confirm this part of his plan of redemption – its extension to all mankind – by the fulfillment of certain minor details of the prophecy of Isaiah in leading the three wise men with their gifts to the child, as a sign that this child was born for them also, was their redeemer also, and that the nations should bow before him as their true king, the King of Heaven, as Tobit referred to him.
The gifts brought by the representatives of the nations at the epiphany of the Messiah symbolize many things. They are signs pointing to the Kingly dignity of the child, but they also represent the faith of the nations that finds its fulfillment in this child. There were always men of good will, men searching for the truth, searching for the truth about God and about God’s relation to sinful man, searching for a redeemer. A redeemer had been promised from the beginning of man’s sinful history in the garden, a promise evidently preserved in the primordial, collective memory of peoples everywhere, that God would somehow rescue mankind from all the sins that have caused so much suffering in this world. So three representa- tives of all the peoples are led by God, in a manner adapted to their own misguided but nonetheless sincere and faithful search for truth, by means of a star, to the child who is also their truth, their hope, their redeemer, their brother and their God.
None of this is meant to suggest that these representatives would have fully understood all this and their role in this epiphany of man’s savior, then or perhaps ever in their lifetime. After all Mary herself had to ponder all these things in her heart, a heart filler with light and life far greater than any one else in this drama of God’s incarnation and redemption. No, these wise men were but a beginning and primarily a symbol of things to come, when the nations would in fact bring their true wealth to this child, the wealth of their faith and hope and love, as they took their place in the Church, as fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The Gospel tells us that when the wise men saw the star once again that had disappeared over Jerusalem, we are told that they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy at its reappearance, and that they followed the star to an even greater joy at the feet of the King of Kings. It seems that we ourselves now live in age when once again the star that leads man to Christ has disappeared from our world. The star can represent a lot of things. It can represent a distant light given to man by God to lead him to Christ the true light of man. This distant light is perhaps a special divine assistance to man’s reason, his natural intelligence, in its search for truth. It is not simply an interior assistance, but something in the created world. Scripture teaches us that God has left traces of His divine creativity and presence in creation, and these traces were meant to lead man to God, so long as man was faithful to the interior light of reason, and kept searching for the truth. But due to the darkening effect of sin on man’s reason, it too needs a further gift as well from God so it may remain faithful to this quest, and thus be able to detect the signs of God’s presence in the creation leading man to himself. Once again God has not been lacking to our need, for all men are surely granted some interior grace of illumination, the beginning of the light of faith, to be able to faithfully search for the truth of God in creation, in the world outside and the world inside man’s heart.
What, then, has happened in our age to make the star that leads to Christ apparently disappear from our world? It seems to be the sin against the truth, the denial that truth itself exists and is worth searching for. Man does not see the star because he denies that this “star” itself exists, and is thus worth searching for, and thus that Christ is worth searching for. The star is there, man simply can no longer see it because he doesn’t bother looking. As a result, man no longer seeks a Savior other than himself, and while the Church continues to proclaim the good news that he has come, fewer men are listening, or even interested.
But even this crisis of faith in the modern world cannot dim our joy if we value the gift we have received in Christ. The wise men rejoiced exceedingly because they saw the star, and saw the child to whom it led them. We see the child with the light of the child, and it should fill us with joy, even in the midst of the darkness of this world. If we manifest this joy, then it will perhaps entice those living without the child, without the star that leads to him to wonder why we have such joy. That in itself might be a new beginning for our world, for we know that the light itself that sustains this joy of ours can never be extinguished